The University of Missouri in Columbia said on Monday that it was restructuring its campus social justice centers in an effort to provide additional resources to support students and in some cases faculty and staff.
A university spokesman confirmed the restructuring after rumors circulated on social media suggesting MU was cutting the centers and firing staff members at the centers, with their roles ending June 30.
University spokesman Christian Basi said he believed staff members were told of the restructuring late last week. He said he wasn’t at the meeting so he didn’t know what they were told, but it was his understanding that it was similar information to what the university was releasing Monday.
“What you’re seeing on social media is inaccurate,” Basi said. He said the university was actually in the process of adding staff members to the centers.
Still, many worry about what the restructuring will entail without seeing a clear plan.
“Mizzou often says one thing in public while saying and/or doing another behind the scenes,” said Mike Olson, with the Coalition of Graduate Workers, a union representing graduate workers at the university. “If you looked up ‘deception’ in the dictionary, you would find the word ‘Mizzou.’”
Concerns around what was happening with the social justice centers led to students gathering Monday morning to march and protest, chanting “justice for justice” across campus, according to KBIA’s Rebecca Smith on Twitter.
Dozens of current and former students shared their stories of finding refuge and support among staff at the centers, including those providing resources for the LGBTQ community and students of color.
“When I first got to campus, (the LGBTQ Resource Center) was a place I could be around people like me and not feel so lonely,” one posted on Twitter.
Employees said they were notified of the centers’ reorganization last week, and alleged that they were told current employees may apply to the new positions being created, but that they were offered no guarantees. That sparked fears that the university might be cutting staff, and that employees, including longtime center directors, might be at risk of losing their jobs.
“These centers are essential in assisting underrepresented and underserved students. Quite literally, it is often the only place on campus where they feel welcomed, heard and valued,” Olson said. “It is not merely the existence of such centers that is essential, but the highly qualified and empathetic staff members are even more so. We are very concerned that these centers will wither away from lack of dedicated staff.”
There are a total of 10 full-time staff members at the university’s social justice centers, Basi said. He expects five more positions will be added as a result of restructuring.
Basi said he didn’t know if any staff members would be let go during the restructuring, saying it would depend on the process. He continued, saying that he wouldn’t be able to answer that question anyway because of personnel and privacy issues.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that we have these centers in a place where they can be best supporting our students,” Basi said.
As part of the restructuring, the university plans to elevate some positions, he said. An example he gave was the position of coordinators.
“We are elevating those positions so that they are assistant directors,” Basi said. “Now obviously that comes with additional responsibilities and it comes with the additional need for expertise as well as specific credentials.”
The university cannot take someone in a current position and put them into an elevated position without doing a full evaluation, he said.
“That is why there are some positions where individuals will have to be applying for them to ensure that we go through the proper process so that we are making sure we have the right people in place for our students,” Basi said.
There are just a few of those positions that will have to be reevaluated. Not all positions will require staff to reapply.
Basi said the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center is key for the university, as well as the other centers: the Women’s Center, LGBTQ Resource Center, Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, and Multicultural Center.
“The university is 100% committed to maintaining these centers to make sure that they are helping us support our students because we know that they contribute to our students’ academic success while they are here,” Basi said.
MU has taken steps to improve diversity and inclusion on campus following a series of student protests in 2015. A predominantly Black student group accused the university of systemic oppression and demanded a list of changes, including the hiring of a more diverse faculty.
The protests led to the resignations of the university president and the Columbia campus chancellor, and set off a national movement on campus diversity and inclusion. Afterward, the university created a task force, hired a vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, plus started requiring diversity training for students, staff and faculty.
In 2016, MU hired its first permanent diversity, equity and inclusion officer. The number of faculty members of color has been gradually increasing since then.
University leaders also have been working toward increasing enrollment and success rates of marginalized students, providing multicultural training and education programs, increasing services for those who have experienced discrimination, among other initiatives.
Last year, the university drew backlash after more than 3,000 people signed a petition calling for a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Columbia campus to be removed. University leaders said it will remain in place. Last September, MU spent roughly $20,000 to place a permanent casing over the tombstone of Jefferson.
Current and former students are pleading for the college to invest more in its social justice centers and offer additional resources to support marginalized students.
Students criticized the university for lacking transparency and for not sharing a clear plan for restructuring its social justice centers, as well as UM system President Mun Choi for making his Twitter account private.
Basi said the university will be communicating at a later stage about some of the changes that are coming. He said the university was not “at that point yet” but a lot of the changes have to do with the resources that will be available to them.